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Helping parents clean out the family home

by Carol Bradley Bursack, Editor-in-Chief

Your Mom has finally made the decision to downsize from the house to a retirement apartment. Since your dad died, it no longer makes sense for her to live in the house. It's too big. It's too inefficient. It's unsafe. However, leaving a home where a person has lived for decades--one with memories of many years intertwined with each and every object in the house--is emotionally distressing. Helping the elder decide what to get rid of and what to keep for the new housing arrangement is difficult. Often, outside help can get you through this.

Cleaning out a house of memories is one of life's heart rending challenges. Even if it's not your childhood home and you aren't all that attached to personal objects for yourself, you may find there are things your parent wants to keep that just don't make sense to you. You can seem emotionally distanced and bossy to your parent. Mom wants to memorialize each and every object and you want to finish as quickly--a dynamic that can lead to you becoming the "bad guy."

You thought when you started to help Mom clean out the house that she would be the only obstacle to throwing out years of trash, didn't you? But now you, too, are caught up in nostalgia. You and Mom are going through the attic. You discover your old high school cheerleader outfit. She says, "Oh, you can let that go, but I'm keeping this hat I wore to Aunt Lucy's funeral."

You say, "Mom!"

Oops, just like in high school.

You are drawn back into that dynamic and the little brat in your comes out. You catch yourself, and say, "I'll keep the cheerleading skirt myself, and then you throw the skirt into the ever growing pile that you can't let go of, while you try to talk Mom out of keeping everything she deems valuable to her future sanity.

You know she won't have room for it all.

Downsizing: Don't Be Afraid to Call an Expert

Even most moderately sized metro areas have a few businesses that specialize in this kind of emotional moving. It's a growing trend because the market is there. These people are as much psychologist/counselor as they are house cleaner/organizer. They specialize in sympathizing with the elder about the losses while building a vision of the elder's future home furnished with their most prized possessions.

Couldn't you do as well? Maybe. However, you are emotionally tied to your mom, the house, the furnishings and the life change going on and that could make you less effective.

Would you operate on your mother if you were a surgeon? Probably not, unless you had no choice. The procedure is too personal. Well, here you are in a similar situation. No, you aren't physically operating, but you are cutting away a good part of the parent's life. There is grief and loss in this type of move and it is possible that you are too involved to give the right mix of authority and counsel to help the elder. Besides, you are still the "child," and your parent likely doesn't take kindly to all of your suggestions, no matter how well intended.

You will be on call, of course. But the director would be someone who is emotionally detached, yet trained in the right areas to help the elder. If a move such as this is looming, you may find hiring an experienced elder mover some of the best money you've spent in quite awhile.